There aren’t many Hawaiian hockey players who have reached the professional ranks of the sport. Zach Pamaylaon is thankful to be one of the few who can say he made it.
“I was lucky to be there at the right place at the right time where I had the chance to play at a higher level,” he said in a phone interview last week.
The 2014 Aiea High School alumnus completed his first year of professional hockey with the Danbury Hat Tricks of the Federal Prospects Hockey League this season. He was part of the team that won the FPHL Commissioner’s Cup Playoffs in five games over the Carolina Thunderbirds.
“It almost felt like it wasn’t real. It was just shocking,” Pamaylaon said. “I remember asking one of my teammates if this was really happening.”
Danbury rallied from a 2–0 series deficit to win the last three games of the best-of-five series over Carolina. Pamaylaon’s only postseason goal came in Game 4 of the series and ended up being the game-winner that helped Danbury force the deciding Game 5, which was ultimately won in overtime by the Hat Tricks.
“I feel like (both teams) played very well up to that point with a lot of passion. … it was very hard and there was a lot of roughness,” Pamaylaon said. “But being down 2-0, I felt like with the group we had all season, the mentality going into the game was obvious, regardless of how many we needed to win. We always had confidence that we were going to win.”
Much of the team’s mindset prioritized the team’s success, according to Pamaylaon.
In the regular season, Danbury went 44-7-5 and Pamaylaon, who normally plays forward, played primarily defenseman for the Hat Tricks even though he had never played in that position outside of his hometown men’s league team. cousin.
“We all accepted and at times had to sacrifice personal success for team success,” Pamaylaon later wrote in a text message. “It was all worth it and I would do anything for my brothers (on the team).”
It’s something that has been instilled in the 27-year-old for much of his life.
Zach Pamaylaon’s hockey origin story begins with his father Aaron, who got his start in the sport after watching people play roller hockey on a basketball court one day while training for a bodybuilding contest.
Aaron still plays hockey today and remembers Zach sitting on his lap as a baby watching hockey games with him. “He really loved hockey and before he started playing hockey, he had a hockey stick in his hand,” Aaron said.
“By the time he was walking, he was walking like he was skating. She would have the stick with him wherever she went. We would go to a mall and he would go in and out of people with a stick in his hand.”
Zach started playing hockey at the age of 3, and within a year of playing, he “started to progress faster than all the other kids,” according to Aaron. When Zach scored his first goal, Aaron remembered that his mother-in-law gave Zach $20 and told him that he would give money to his grandson every time he scored a goal.
“Within that first year, he went from $20 a goal to $5 because he scored so many goals,” Aaron said.
Even though his son was a high volume scorer, Aaron, who also coached Zach through junior hockey, wanted Zach to help his teammates grow. As a result, Zach became more of a playmaking forward, a trait he still possesses today.
“Zach has a lot of speed; he is a very smart hockey player,” said Doug Jones, who is looking for Danbury on the West Coast. “He doesn’t commit too much, he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. As a rookie I was very impressed with his sound skills and the fact that he reads and reacts to the play very well.”
James Smith remembers a time when Zach Pamaylaon “was a kid who was just raw talent.” Smith was introduced to the Pamaylaons through an old teammate of his, Aiea’s Grant Matsushita, and played with Zach in a men’s league at the Ice Palace.
“I had my hands because that was all I could practice and I could keep control pretty good, but I didn’t know where to go yet,” Smith said. “I just needed some guidance, and I think he played with me and other people as well…just by talking through the game, he learned things quickly.”
Smith, who is scouting teams at the junior hockey level, connected Zach with a friend, Chris Kanaly, who coached the Philadelphia Revolution of the Eastern Hockey League.
“He went in basically blind and came out shining the best he could on the other side because of what he came up with,” Smith said. “They made him sit down for a while because he was raw. They didn’t know what to make of him, but he picked up the game very quickly over a span of two years.”
After three seasons playing for the Revolution, Zach ended up playing college hockey 20 miles north of Philadelphia at Division III Bryn Athyn College. In his first three seasons at Bryn Athyn, Zach recorded 34 points in a total of 62 games played.
Prior to Zach’s senior season, Bryn Athyn rose from the NCAA Division III level to the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division II level, and as a senior, he racked up 74 points in 21 games, ranking him second in ACHA Division II. Pamaylaon was also named Colonial States College Hockey Conference MVP after leading the conference in points, goals, and assists.
“It didn’t feel like he was working hard. I felt like I was playing the game I loved.”
Out of college, Pamaylaon initially tried out for the Huntsville Havoc of the Southern Professional Hockey League, but did not make the final roster. The Huntsville coach passed on Pamaylaon’s information to the FPHL teams and three teams in the league were interested in him. But it was Danbury and his trainer Billy McCreary who stood out.
“I really wanted to play for him and Danbury,” Zach said. “He’s very nice and he sounded like a nice guy and a good coach.”
Pamaylaon said in an email that he is “protected for three years with Danbury. … I’m glad they saw me as a piece of their long-term puzzle.”
Pamaylaon played in 46 games for Danbury this season, recording 25 points (eight goals and 17 assists). Against Carolina in the championship round of the playoffs, he played defenseman in Game 1 and was cut from the lineup in Game 2.
With Danbury trailing 2–0 in the series, he was reinserted into the lineup at his normal forward position for Game 3, which he played for the remainder of the series.
Danbury won that game 6-2. In Game 4, Pamaylaon buried the rebound of a shot from the low slot to score the power play goal that ended up being Danbury’s 4–3 game-winner.
In the Game 5 overtime period, Pamaylaon found his teammate on a back-and-forth pass before being stopped at the blue line. His teammate took the puck to the net and took a shot that was saved, but the rebound put it into the net for the winning goal.
On May 21, a week after winning Game 5 and the Commissioner’s Cup, Pamaylaon and his Danbury teammates had their victory parade through town.
“It was nice to share the win with the fans and the city of Danbury,” Pamaylaon said. “It was a very nice experience, amazing.”
Pamaylaon said that his salary is not enough to make him rich, but he said: “I am playing the game that I love and chasing my dream, so I couldn’t be happier. … Fortunately, the team does a good job of hosting us and supporting us.”
Pamaylaon was one of two players from Hawaii to play in the FPHL this season, along with Honolulu’s Lance Hamilton. Pamaylaon was also one of nine forwards Danbury opted to protect in the upcoming FPHL expansion draft for the upcoming 2023-24 season, which begins in October.
Right now, Pamaylaon is on the island looking to host hockey clinics to give back to the next generation of hockey players in Hawaii.
“I was lucky to have the opportunity and the opportunity to play on the continent,” he said. “Not many kids can say that about Hawaii. I’ve played with a lot of good kids growing up and most of the time it doesn’t work out.”
Hockey itself has come a long way in the state, according to Jones, who is also director of hockey operations at Kapolei Inline Hockey Arenas. He estimates that after five more years, Hawaiian players could end up playing at the college level, in the minor leagues or abroad in Europe.
“There are hockey programs on Maui, on the Big Island, here on Oahu … we’re finally starting to get the respect that hockey players should deserve,” Jones said. “We’re still going through a construction phase, but the actual game has made tremendous progress here in the last two years.”
Pamaylaon: “It would be nice to pass it on and hopefully another kid will get that chance too.”